“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Two)

You write about the “ironic imagination” as a way of describing the ways fans are and are not immersed in the fictional worlds you describe. Can you explain what you mean by this concept and how it might address long-standing concerns about naive or unknowing spectatorship?


  Ironic self-reflexivity itself seems to be part of our natural makeup: psychologists find that children develop the capacity to engage in meta-representations from an early age. But the degree to which cultures encourage or discourage ironic self-reflexivity has varied.

For Western Europeans and North Americans, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not a period especially open to the ironic habitation of fictional worlds. The early Victorians in particular were ambivalent about fiction, which they shackled to religious and utilitarian strictures. In As If, I trace the gradual cultural shift from the Victorians’ stress on “sincerity” and a cohesive “character” to the Edwardians’ greater emphasis on multiple perspectives and a complex “personality” capable of living in multiple “worlds” without cognitive dissonance.

I found that the ironic, self-aware apprehension of representations during this latter period was widespread. Irony has long been identified with the literary modernism of the late nineteenth century, but it was also pervasive in mass culture as well. She, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were among the many coyly self-referential texts that helped inculcate an “ironic imagination” in their readers.

Readers were trained to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in imaginary worlds and characters. Friedrich Nietzsche was an influential proponent of the ironic imagination, and Tolkien applied the concept to imaginary worlds directly. He noted that Coleridge was wrong to argue in 1817 that readers inhabited fantastic worlds through the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, they willingly believed in these worlds, while at the same time acknowledging that they were engaged in pretense. Coleridge’s views reflected the “sincere” outlook of the early Victorians; Tolkien’s the “ironic imagination” of the late nineteenth century.

Critics of mass culture, from the fin de siècle to the nineteen-sixties if not beyond, have tended to assume that texts that appeal to the masses are simplistic, conveying univocal messages promoting the ideologies of the culture industry entwined with the state. Examining the texts themselves, and how they were received and repurposed by readers – the “textual poaching” you’ve analyzed in your work – reveals a very different situation. So-called postmodern self-reflexivity was emerging in the nineteenth century through the spread of the ironic imagination; consumers of the new mass culture often approached it in sophisticated ways.

However, it is important to stress that the ironic imagination is usually insufficient on its own to challenge mass culture’s appeal to desire. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was a lucid exponent of the ironic imagination, but this didn’t prevent him from holding racist opinions without any irony whatsoever for most of his life. Similarly, The German writer Thomas Mann cultivated an ironic imagination, but lost all critical distance with the outbreak of WWI, becoming an ardent nationalist.

Audiences during the fin de siècle were not naive: but irony can be helpless against canny appeals to our desires. Fortunately, another resource arose in the late nineteenth century culture to challenge these emotional appeals: “public spheres of the imagination.” Even Lovecraft benefitted from these at a late point in his life, as he himself acknowledged.


Your term, “public spheres of the imagination,” seems especially evocative as a means of thinking about fan communities and practices. In some ways, we have reduced Habermas’s much richer notion of the public sphere, which included literature and the arts, to a narrower conception of the political. In my own current research, I am focusing on the concept of fan activism and looking at the ways activists/fans are appropriating and remixing elements of fictional worlds to build a new language for social change. Is your suggestion that this blurring between politics and fan culture is not some outgrowth of post-modernity, as some have suggested to me, but may have been part of the project of modernity all along?  In what ways do you see fan discussions as constituting a “public sphere”? What does the “imagination” bring to this process?


So much of what we take to be quintessentially “postmodern” – self-reflexivity, intertextuality, an emphasis on the provisional, contingent, social-constructionist dimensions of human experience – was already in play by the end of the nineteenth century. These qualities are characteristic features of imaginary worlds of the time (works by Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard are wonderfully intertextual, for example). They were emergent rather than dominant forms of expression at the time, but they do suggest that postmodernism was not a break with modernity, as some have argued, but a vital tendency within modernity itself, which assumed a greater momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. (Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern should be modified to We Have Never Been Postmodern).

Readers have appropriated utopias for political purposes, notably Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But utopias and satires are associated with the primary world – they are not strictly “secondary worlds,” which connotes a greater degree of autonomy from the primary world. One of the fascinating aspects of secondary worlds is how fans nevertheless have used them to discuss, reimagine, and change the primary world.

Fans have been enabled to engage in these communal tasks via “public spheres of the imagination.” These first appeared in the late nineteenth century, in the new letters pages of fiction magazines. Readers were encouraged to discuss imaginary worlds with one another, the editor, and the works’ authors. In the 1920s, some magazines began to include the letter writers’ address, which fostered direct contacts between fans and led to new public spheres of the imagination in the 1930s, such as fanzines, fan clubs, and conventions.

I’ve noted that these venues allowed fans to inhabit imaginary worlds communally and for prolonged periods, transforming them into virtual worlds. But as an unintended consequence, fans also began to relate autonomous imaginary worlds to the real world, using the former as touchstones to discuss the latter.

I distinguish these public spheres from those discussed by Habermas by highlighting the central role played in them by the imagination. Habermas emphasized the importance of rational and egalitarian communications in his Enlightenment-inspired conception. Public spheres of the imagination also promoted rational and egalitarian discussions – at least these were proclaimed ideals – but added to them the alternate realities and “cognitive estrangements,” made possible by the imagination.

To a greater extend than Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, arguably, public spheres of the imagination encourage thinking outside of the box. (Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists like Georges Sorel and Ernst Bloch discussed the use of fantasy and the imagination for political and social purposes, but scholars have been largely unaware of how similar ideas were being generated and even put into practice by fans at this time as well.)

Public spheres of the imagination revel in the “cognitive estrangement” that science fiction and fantasy direct toward consensus reality. They are also sites in which individuals try to reconcile utopian aspirations with practical and rational programs. Russian fans of The Lord of the Rings, for example, were inspired by the Hobbits’ opposition to Saruman’s “scouring of the Shire” to actively support Yeltsin’s defiance of the attempted military coup of 1991.

Public spheres of the imagination, especially when they have a diverse constituency, can challenge unexamined assumptions and challenge one-sided convictions; they are a necessary complement to the ironic imagination when it comes to living in virtual worlds of the imagination. Thus members of the “Lovecraft Circle” at times vigorously contested Lovecraft’s political and social views, which were also challenged in the amateur journalism societies to which he belonged. He was forced to reconsider his most cherished beliefs, and over the long term he did modify many of his opinions and prejudices (although his racist views about Blacks never changed). Similarly, Christian fans of Middle-earth have engaged in constructive dialogues with fans from other faiths, or no faith at all, in the public spheres of the imagination dedicated to Tolkien’s imaginary world.

A homogeneous public sphere, however, often preaches to the choir. This was a problem with the Inklings, which Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged to. The group was largely comprised of white, middle class, Christian writers, and tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, many of the fundamental convictions of its members.


Rather than describing the “willing suspension of disbelief,” a common phrase, you argue that these practices are best understood through “the willing activation of pretense.” What mechanisms have emerged to support such a process? How is it tied to the various forms of “documentation” and “mapping” that you describe?


         As I noted, the early Victorians were worried about the irreligious and antisocial potentials of the imagination, and tried to delimit it to religious and utilitarian purposes. Coleridge’s famous phrase, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” reflects this point of view – “disbelief” is taken as the default position, which is then temporarily suspended. This restrictive attitude toward the imagination changed over the course of the century owing to many factors – notably secularist currents of thought and the rise of mass culture, which encouraged the exercise of the imagination and undermined the authority of elites by appealing directly to consumers.

A good example of this change was mid-Victorian children’s literature, which was less moralistic and didactic than earlier tracts delighting in naughty children burning in hell; instead, works like Alice in Wonderland celebrated, even encouraged, imaginative whimsy. Writers of the New Romance were weaned on these books and consciously recalled them as they wrote imaginary worlds for adults as well as children.

By the late nineteenth century, adults were allowed to actively “believe” in imaginary worlds, with the double-minded understanding that they were engaging in pretense. This is a more immersive state of mind than the “willing suspension of disbelief” and allows for imaginary worlds to become virtual worlds.

This immersive, participatory state of mind was also enhanced by the paratexts that were distinguishing features of the New Romance. Detailed maps, glossaries, footnotes, photographs, and so on imparted tremendous realism to the fantastic imaginary worlds described by the text. Paratexts remain a vital dimension of imaginary worlds to this day. (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” opens with a wonderful, three-dimensional map, gesturing to the traditions established by the New Romance.)

Paratexts also encourage fans to speculate about what has been left out of the documents, reconcile contradictions within them, and contribute to the cognitive mapping of the world from the information provided. These participatory activities enhance one own emotional and cognitive investment in the world, thereby escalating the immersive experience, rendering the world not only more “real” but more “alive” or virtual.

An interesting consequence of such virtual world building is that it often reminded fans of the constructed nature of the real world. Nationalism, or any number of other “isms,” became less defensible as unchanging essences distinguishing one group from another. Nations could be seen as “imagined communities,” in Benedict Anderson’s phrase; personal and social identities were increasingly acknowledged to be more fluid, constructed, and performative in nature. Tolkien, for example, created his imaginary world as an essentialist myth for England. Many of his fans, however, actively debated the nature and purpose of nationalism, as well as ethnicity, gender, class and religion. Many fans came to question essentialist outlooks.

Thus, as a result of inhabiting imaginary worlds, and discussing them with others in public spheres of the imagination, we see a move from the passive acceptance of essentialist, “just so” narratives to a greater comfort at embracing provisional and contingent “as if” narratives. Imagining new cosmopolitan worlds and pluralistic identities is one of the benefits of imaginary world building and habitation, or at least it can be. (I also discuss more “essentialist” receptions of Middle-earth by neo-fascists, which highlights the importance of diversely constituted public spheres and openness to debate as prophylactics against such “just so” stories.)


Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).